Saving the hellbender

Efforts under way to boost the salamander’s numbers

Submitted photo Josh Emanuelson, Little Beaver Creek Watershed coordinator, holds an adult hellbender. The salamanders can weigh up to 8 pounds and measure 30 inches in length.

Treasure hunting in the Little Beaver Creek isn’t for the faint of heart, or those with cold blood.

Wearing body suits and snorkels, two divers wended their way up the river in mid-September, carefully searching for crevices in the stream bed. They weren’t looking for gold or silver.

Instead their quarry was a salamander that can weigh up to eight pounds and measure up to 30 inches in length.

They’re called snot otters. Lasagna lizards. Devil dogs.

The Eastern hellbender has many nicknames, but the salamander is the largest amphibian in the U.S. It is also an endangered species, and the focus of a concerted conservation effort.

“Hellbenders have declined dramatically in recent years, and we’re trying to boost their numbers in the Little Beaver Creek,” says Josh Emanuelson, who is the Little Beaver Creek Watershed Coordinator.

The hellbender is harmless, and was initially found throughout the eastern U.S., ranging from New York State to the Ozarks. However, the salamander – which sometimes is caught by fishermen — has already disappeared in much of its range.

Hellbenders can’t be called beautiful; their brown bodies are covered in a slippery sheen of mucus. They also have a wrinkly appearance as they absorb oxygen from the water through capillaries on their side frills. The animals, which also have functioning lungs, live on crayfish and small fish.

“Ohio has one of the better conservation efforts, going on right now,” says Emanuelson. “Other states don’t have the habitat like we do.” Hellbenders are particular. They need fast moving and clean water, and parts of the Beaver Creek fit the bill.

Unfortunately the hellbenders’ habitat is being destroyed by pollution and especially siltation, chiefly when heavy rains bring dirt and sediment into the creek, filling in rocky crevices in the river bottom that hellbenders love to frequent and where they lay their eggs.

Sediment also covers the gravel creek beds that young hellbenders favor.

The result has been that populations of the hellbender in Ohio have fallen by more than 82 percent in the last two decades, according to a recent study.

“In Ohio, there are only six to seven rivers that now have reproducing hellbender populations,” says Emanuelson.

To boost breeding populations, naturalists have started putting concrete hellbender “huts” into the Little Beaver Creek. Each den weighs about 50 pounds, and costs about $300 to make. Leetonia-based Quaker City Septic Tanks donated 10 to the Columbiana County Soil and Water Conservation District for use in the Little Beaver Creek.

The blocks are strategically located, and Emanuelson and others are hopeful that hellbenders will use them to deposit their eggs. In September, one natural den was found with eggs.

“The eggs look like a pearl necklace,” says Emanuelson.

The translucent globules were carefully gathered for shipment to the Toledo and Columbus zoos, which raise the salamanders until they are big enough to survive in the wild.

That usually takes three years. When they are ready to be freed, naturalists again don wet suits and snorkels to work their way up the stream, looking for suitable crevices in the rocks to put the hellbenders, some of which have transmitters like microchips under their skin.

“If they don’t have a den, raccoons can easily catch and eat them,” Emanuelson says.

So far more than 200 animals raised in captivity have been set loose in the Little Beaver Creek.

That effort may insure that hellbenders, which date back 180 million years, will be found in the Little Beaver Creek for many years to come.